MADISON, Wis. — Factory farms in eastern Wisconsin would have to limit manure spreading under new restrictions the state Department of Natural Resources board is poised to adopt in an attempt to protect groundwater from contamination.

The DNR has been working on the regulations for two years, largely in response to widespread drinking water contamination in Kewaunee County. The initial version called for statewide manure restrictions, but the dairy industry balked at the potential costs after Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s office shared the plan with farm groups.

The department’s policy board is set to vote Wednesday on another draft that imposes restrictions on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS, in 15 eastern counties with Silurian bedrock. Contaminants can seep through that bedrock without getting absorbed, making statewide water quality standards unattainable in the region and county-specific regulations necessary, according to DNR officials.

Farmers still aren’t happy with the revisions, saying they’re too tough and will disrupt their industry. Environmentalists counter the rules don’t go far enough and should at least apply to southwestern Wisconsin, too. The bedrock in that region is fractured and porous, leaving groundwater vulnerable to pollution, she said.

“Certainly, more needs to be done to protect drinking water, and these rules are a good start,” Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney Sarah Geers said in an email to The Associated Press. “(But) it is unacceptable for DNR to delay action in southwest Wisconsin until there is a public outcry in response to widespread contamination.”

Under the regulations, farms with less than 2 feet of topsoil would be prohibited from spreading manure. Factory farms are already required to follow that prohibition. Farms with between 2 feet and 20 feet of soil would have to follow a web of gallon restrictions and annual spread rates depending on soil depth. Liquid and solid manure would have to be treated to substantially reduce pathogen levels.

The restrictions would apply in Door, Kewaunee, Brown, Manitowoc, Calumet, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Dodge, Washington, Ozaukee, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha.

Despite the scale-back to 15 counties, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association still contends farmers would have to buy additional land with more topsoil so they can spread manure and soil depth data is decades old and unreliable.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key GOP ally, is pushing back as well.

The group argues the DNR hasn’t proven that current water quality standards in the 15 counties have been implemented and are unattainable. The regulations also lack a firm definition of Silurian bedrock and improperly rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wisconsin Geological Natural History Survey to identify such areas, the organization maintains.

“Regulating before we have clear maps precisely designating which parts of the state will be subject to these changes is simply ridiculous and leaves the regulated community in the untenable position of having to guess whether or not the rules apply to them,” Lucas Vebber, WMC’s director of environmental and energy policy, wrote to the DNR in October.

DNR board approval would send the regulations to Walker for a final sign-off. The Republican-controlled Legislature would then have about two months to raise objections and demand changes

The WDBA and WMC are powerful and have the ear of Walker and his fellow Republicans. The governor’s spokeswoman, Amy Hesenberg, didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment on whether the governor may demand changes in the regulations. Mike Mikalsen, an aide to state Sen. Steve Nass, co-chairman of the Legislature’s administrative rules committee, also didn’t reply to an email.

DNR board member Bill Bruins of Brandon runs a 600-head dairy farm. That’s about 400 cattle short of the DNR’s definition of a CAFO but he’s been watching the regulations closely.

He said the regulations balance groundwater protection with farmers’ livelihoods. He defended the regional approach, saying the DNR hasn’t heard of problems with pathogens in groundwater elsewhere in the state and said soil depth data is “very adequate.”

“I’m pretty proud of the process the department took with this,” he said. “I would be surprised if there’s a roadblock in the Legislature.”


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